The Universal Notebook: It could be worse

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As I watch Republicans try to defend treason, Democrats fiddle while America burns, and the American people squabble over masks and vaccines while people die, I have to remind myself it could be worse.

And, in fact, I guess it has been.

Edgar Allen BeemI’m old enough to remember, for example, when we had duck-and-cover air raid drills in school. I grew up knowing there was a reasonable possibility that the USSR and the U.S. might blow up the world. The existential threat kids worry about today is climate change. Not with a bang but a whimper.

Apocalyptic change is relative. I once interviewed a veteran British war photographer and I asked him if things had ever been worse than 9/11 and the war on terror. He replied that he had grown up with German planes bombing his childhood home. Nothing had been that bad since World War II ended.

For me the year 1968 is the nadir of living history. That was the year America went to hell and it’s never quite recovered.

In 1968, we had the capture of the USS Pueblo, and the Tet Offensive, and Walter Cronkite – American TV’s firm, benevolent uncle – let everyone know that we were losing the war in Vietnam. As if to confirm this, U.S. troops massacred 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai, putting an end to the fantasy that Americans were the good guys, and hastening the end of that pointless and unpopular conflict.

We also had the Kerner Report telling us that America was becoming two countries: one black, one white. Civil rights unrest was ubiquitous.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April, sparking riots in 110 U.S. cities, chief among them Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C. While the cities were burning, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June. These days, we have a lot of violence, gun violence in particular, but so far, praise heaven, we have not had any assassinations. 

In late 1968, we also saw the Democratic National Convention erupt in police violence and Richard M. Nixon, the most corrupt president in American history until Donald Trump was elected, eked out a narrow victory over a hapless Hubert Humphrey.

All of this turmoil played out, by the way, against the backdrop of the 1968 flu pandemic (a.k.a. the Hong Kong flu), during which 100,000 people died in this country and between 1 million and 4 million died worldwide. By way of comparison, COVID-19 has killed 784,000 Americans and some 5 million worldwide – so far. And still, some idiots think that isn’t so bad.

There is a natural tendency to feel that your own times are exceptional, so, yes, I do feel that 1968 was the worst year in American history. But last year a panel of 28 leading historians concluded that 1968 was only the fifth-worst year in U.S. history.

In eighth place was the pandemic year 2020 followed by 2001 and 9/11; 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis (duck-and-cover, kiddies); 1968; 1918 and the so-called Spanish flu; 1838 and the forced relocation of Native Americans, and in second place, the stock market crash year of 1929.

The worst year, the historians decided, was 1862, the year the Civil War threatened to tear the country apart. About 150 years later, the same kind of people are threatening to destroy America by enflaming racial divisions, undermining free and fair elections, and flagrantly disregarding the truth.

So, yes, it has been worse. Not that there’s much solace in that.  

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.